Answer not black and white to question about SeaWorld orcas' future
Unlike the movie "Free Willy," there will be no happy ending for the killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego.
A documentary released in 2013 accuses the company of neglecting and abusing its orcas. The movie led animal welfare activists to demand that the San Diego, Callifornia, theme park free its 11 orcas, also known as killer whales.
But marine biologists — including SeaWorld critics — agree that the killer whales probably will never be released to the open seas.
Even if the orcas don’t spend the rest of their lives in the theme park, performing for crowds, the closest they would get to freedom would be retirement in ocean coves separated from open water by netting. There, they would be fed and cared for by humans for the rest of their lives.
“They are not good candidates for release to the wild, either because they were born in captivity or because they have been in captivity for a very long time,” said Naomi Rose. She is a marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute.
Sea Pens Require Big Budgets
No enclosed sea pens exist to hold all 11 orcas, either as a group or individually. And the cost of building such pens could reach $5 million each, with staffing costs of up to $500,000 a year for each pen, Rose said.
Although animal welfare groups have pushed the idea of moving SeaWorld’s orcas to sea pens, the discussion may be merely academic. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., the parent company of the San Diego theme park, has rejected the idea of giving up its killer whales. It says they are safer living in the parks’ concrete and glass enclosures.
“They would not be better off in sea pens than where they are now,” said Chris Dold, the lead veterinarian for SeaWorld Entertainment. “We would not ever feel comfortable putting our whales into that setting.”
Dold and other SeaWorld supporters say sea pens could expose orcas to ocean toxins, viruses and harsh weather. They say that long-captive killer whales can’t withstand these conditions.
“There are so many reasons why sea pens are not a ... (cure-all),” said Kathleen Dezio. She is executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, an international group representing marine mammal theme parks and aquariums.
Documentary Inspired Calls To Free Orcas
The call to free the orcas has grown louder since the 2013 release of the documentary “Blackfish.” The film charged SeaWorld’s parks with abusing and neglecting its killer whales.
SeaWorld Entertainment has 23 orcas in three parks across the country. An 18-year-old orca died at SeaWorld San Antonio in Texas in December after a monthslong illness. Miami Seaquarium in Florida has one killer whale.
Facing customer blowback from the documentary, SeaWorld San Diego proposed a $100 million plan last year to double the size of its orca enclosure, under a project called Blue World. The project won the approval of the California Coastal Commission in October. However, the state government panel added the condition that SeaWorld end its captive breeding program and halt the transfer of its orcas in and out of the park.
SeaWorld has put Blue World on hold and has filed a lawsuit challenging the commission’s authority to impose the no-breeding conditions.
During the commission hearing, SeaWorld critics waved banners calling for the release of the killer whales. Animal welfare activists said the captive killer whales are tortured and driven insane by their concrete enclosures, insisting that the orcas would be happier in sea pens.
A petition on change.org has collected more than 220,000 signatures. It calls for SeaWorld Orlando in Florida to release a killer whale featured in “Blackfish,” Tilikum, to a sea pen.
Was Captive Orca's Release A Success?
The most often cited example of a captive orca released to a sea pen is Keiko, the killer whale featured in the 1993 Warner Bros. movie “Free Willy.”
Keiko was captured off Iceland in 1979 and trained to perform at theme parks. After several years at a theme park in Mexico City, Mexico, the killer whale was transported to a sea pen in Iceland in 1998. Experts disagree on whether the move was a success.
Caretakers say they spent up to $300,000 a month to care for and attempt to train the orca to feed itself in the wild.
During a short swim outside of the pen, accompanied by caretakers on a ship, Keiko swam away and turned up in a deep inlet in Norway. There, he was found cavorting with children and fisherman along the shore. The killer whale died a few months later of acute pneumonia.
Mark Simmons is a former SeaWorld trainer who was hired to assist with Keiko in Iceland. He said the Keiko experience showed that sea pens are not a safe environment for orcas.
Simmons said storms and strong currents in Iceland damaged Keiko’s sea pen, creating so much noise and vibration that it likely unsettled the killer whale.
Toxins, Viruses And Other Sea Dangers
Dold, SeaWorld’s chief veterinarian, said sea pens can also expose killer whales to viruses passed on through fish in the pens or toxins and oil spills that wash in with the tide.
“It’s very hard to eliminate all of those threats that exist out there,” he said. “They are particularly dangerous to a precious group of killer whales born in a zoological setting such as ours.”
Animal welfare activists say critics dismiss the idea as expensive and problematic because they don’t want to consider an alternative to keeping the orcas captive.
“They are blindsiding it because they don’t want a solution,” said Ingrid Visser, founder of the Orca Research Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated to education and the research of orcas. “We can put a man on the moon, surely we can move an animal out of a concrete life.”